“Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along!”
I asserted in a recent review that I preferred the work of Buster Keaton over Chaplin. I consider both men incredibly talented, visionary artists whose contributions to cinema are immense in nature, but I feel like my personal tastes lean far more towards Keaton. Perhaps I’m a result of a more recent generation in which deadpan and irreverence trumps conventional slapstick, and I suppose Keaton is at least more indicative of the former, but I’d like to remind my readers that a work by Charlie Chaplin still translates beautifully into a modern viewing with modern audiences, particularly his iconic 1936 work: Modern Times, and I’m always delighted to take on another one of his films.
Chaplin plays an assembly line worker in a brutal industrial climate, overworked and humiliated by his superiors, eventually forced onto the street for his failure to keep up with the “modern times.” In a classic Chaplin-esque series of events, his character makes his way through various twists, turns, and shifts of fortune while in endless pursuit of a beautiful woman, in this case a penniless orphan by the name of Ellen Peterson (played by Paulette Goddard). The two lovers seek security and stability as Chaplin makes his way through an unfavorable economic system just to provide for his love. It’s a beautiful, tragic, hilarious story one would come to expect from an artist of Chaplin’s stature.
It’s a well known fact that Chaplin grew more political as his career progressed. A film like City Lights is far more universally appealing due to its neutrality, and while thematic elements may present themselves in City Lights, the film is fairly free from overarching commentary. Modern Times takes a more adamant stance than Chaplin’s previous work: a scathing condemnation of the industrial era and various facets of capitalism associated with it. Chaplin’s iconic “Tramp” character makes his final appearance in the film as an overworked factory worker who finds himself scrambling for his mental health when pushed to the brink by the tiresome demand of industrial labor. It’s a poignant commentary, and Chaplin effectively blends his trademark physical humor with this newfound edge to keep the film both insightful but still humorous. Likely for this reason, Modern Times remains one of his most beloved films.
The film’s motifs may be a bit heavy-handed at times, but there’s still something remarkable about how Chaplin presents his argument against “modern times” as they stood in 1936. In a fairly brief piece of feature film, we receive commentary about not only industry and capitalism, but sacrifice, protest, chance, status, and the American dream. This film is ripe with topics worth evaluating more deeply, and yet it’s still packed with physical gags to keep you smiling throughout the more somber moments. I also really appreciate how the Tramp makes his final appearance in this sort of film, suggesting that he’s still striving for something more than he’s attained. The film’s final scene is also incredibly powerful when viewed in context of the character’s full history. It’s not the liveliest message the film could have ended with, but it feels warmly fitting and strangely inspiring.
Of Chaplin’s two films I’ve reviewed so far, I’d probably prefer City Lights. There’s a lot more to smile at, and the gags seemed to hit their mark more often, but Modern Times is nonetheless is a fine piece of work from his filmography. It’s a tremendous example of well crafted comedy with some important things to say at the same time, and this balance is rarely attempted and even more rarely achieved in contemporary filmmaking. The classic silent film continues to impress me in this way: seeking innovation and presenting its message in such a unique, artistic way that you just don’t see anymore. If only for this reason (and also for many more), these films are well worth checking out today.
Films Left to Watch: 910